A Victim of the Treaty of Altranstadt
|Statue of Charles pointing to Russia|
Augustus returned to Saxony, where to the surprise of many, the two kings[i] got on well together. Their relationship was assisted because Augustus was married to Charles’s cousin.
‘The two kings dined together several times afterwards. King Charles always affected to give the right hand to King Augustus.’[ii]The person most affected by the Treaty of Altranstadt was Patkul; the treaty demanded the handing over of all Swedish traitors in Saxony. Patkul had been active in ensuring that the Russian troops quartered in Saxony[iii] were cared for. Following the refusal of the Saxon government to pay for their upkeep, Patkul had extended his own credit to ensure that the soldiers did not starve. Eventually Patkul arranged, with Peter’s approval, to assign the Russian soldiers to the Austrians, who would fund their upkeep and for whom they would fight.
It was this act of Patkul’s that was to see him designated a traitor; when he returned from his betrothal ceremony[iv] he was seized by the Saxons and thrown into prison. The shockwaves of this arrest were felt throughout Europe. The representative of a sovereign ruler had been dealt with outside diplomatic protocols[v]. Prince Golitsky demanded his release, whilst Charles demanded the handover of the traitors.
Possibly deciding that Peter, in Russia, was too far away to cause him immediate harm, Augustus decided that he had no option but to comply with Charles’s demands.
‘And he [Charles] absolutely insisted upon the giving up of General Patkul without delay.’[vi]Patkul was handed over to the Swedes on 27th March 1707; he was held in a cell, chained to a stake. In October he was tried by court-martial, ordered to deal with the prisoner with extreme severity.
‘Charles XII, forgetting that forgetting that Patkul was the Czar’s Embassador; and considering only that he was born his subject, ordered a council of war to pass sentence upon him with the utmost rigour.’[vii]Patkul was sentenced to be broken on the wheel, then beheaded and quartered. His body was not buried, but displayed as a warning to other would-be traitors.
Charles Turns EastHaving removed two of his three opponents, Saxony and Denmark, Charles now turned his attention to Russia. To avoid a war on Russian soil Peter looked for allies in Europe; promising the Dutch help against their wars with the French; promising France help against England and he asked England to threaten war against Sweden to bring Charles to the negotiating table.
Charles was like a man possessed and was not interested in anything other than bringing down Russia. He was now convinced of the superiority of his own decisions, no longer listening to his own advisers, friends and family. Peter was offering all kinds of inducements to come to terms, including most of his gains on the Baltic, with the exception of St Petersburg, Schlüsselberg-Nöteberg and the Neva River connecting them.
‘I will sacrifice the last Swedish soldier rather than cede Nöteberg’[viii]was Charles’s considered response. Peter was to be punished as Augustus had been punished. His army was one of the best in Europe and at this time Peter’s successes in the Baltic had not erased the impression of a shambolic army. He informed his client king Stanislaus
‘The Tsar is not yet humiliated enough to accept the conditions of peace I intend to prescribe.’[ix]Charles intended to dethrone Peter, possibly restore the old regime, cancel Peter’s reforms and abolish the Russian army; in effect thrust Russia back in the medieval period from which Peter had been attempting to rescue his country.
Charles’s officers assumed that the king would strike first at Russia’s new Baltic provinces and reverse the losses of recent years. But Charles’s pan was more grandiose; he intended to strike at the country’s heart, Moscow. He believed that only by humiliating Peter personally in the centre of his country[x], could he achieve lasting peace for Sweden. Peter was encouraged to believe that the Baltic was Charles’s objective. When the march on Moscow began subsidiary operations in the Baltic would start.Charles’s troops in Saxony were incremented by German Protestant volunteers, eager to support the Protestant monarch who had freed them from Catholic domination. The Swedish army swelled from 19,000 to 32,000 and another 9,000 were being drilled in Swedish Pomerania. There were an additional 26,000 Swedish soldiers in Lithuania and Finland, waiting to join the fight.
On August 27th 1707 Charles rode out of Altranstadt castle on his latest and greatest adventure. During his process through Silesia the peasantry treated Charles and his army as conquering heroes. He even dropped in for a cosy chat with Augustus in Dresden and visited his aunt.
Preparations for WarPeter was aware that Charles intended to invade Russia across its border with Poland. To stop the Swedes living off the land Peter ordered Cossacks and Kalmucks into Poland to create an area of devastation, from which supplies would be unobtainable[xi]. His attempts to recruit soldiers was assisted by the Swedes who had cut the first two fingers of the right hand of 46 Russian soldiers taken prisoner and then returned to Russia as an object lesson. Peter’s answer was simple;
‘For he intended to place one of [the maimed solders] in every regiment, who might be living remonstrance to their companions what usage they could expect from their merciless enemies in case they suffered themselves to be captured.’[xii]
Count Boris Sheremetev
Peter also ordered new fortifications for Moscow; he spent the early summer in Warsaw, where he fell ill and it was not until September that he started the long journey back home. On the way he inspected the fortifications and spoke to army commanders. It was decided to withdraw the infantry from Poland and placed under Sheremetev’s command in Minsk. Menshikov was given command of all the cavalry in Poland.During this period Peter suffered from a prolonged bout of ill-health, exacerbated by the bad news from the Ukraine, where Bulavin was running riot. And it was during this period that he secretly married Catherine in November 1707. On 6th January, after a period of time spent in Moscow inspecting the defence works and standardising ambassador’s pay amongst other less serious matters, Peter left for Minsk and was en route when he learnt that Charles was advancing through Poland.
The Road to Russia
Poznan in the 17th century
As the Swedish army marched into Poland they were met by scenes of devastation. The Russian cavalry stayed out of reach. The Swedes camped outside Poznan for two months and when they struck camp in November Charles left 5,000 dragoons and 3,000 infantry to stabilise Stanislaus’s insecure throne. The army avoided Warsaw and on 31st December succeeded in crossing the Vistula, by marching northwards to avoid the Russians guarding the far bank.
The harsh weather and bad roads, some just forest trails, took their toll and many of the German dragoon regiments suffered desertions. The Swedes took to brutalising the peasants for their stores of food, killing children if food was not forthcoming or firing villages after killing the inhabitants. Many of the peasants turned to guerrilla warfare, sniping at the enemy from the thick woods.Arriving at Kolno, the Swedes found the Russians again conspicuous by their absence and Charles decided to make for Grodno, where Russian troops were massing to defend this strategic town. Charles rode ahead with a few hundred men and to find the bridge across the river Neman still standing and guarded by only 2,000 cavalry. In the battle fought in the early afternoon gloom the Russians, attacked from the front and rear, retreated into the town, which held the Czar himself.
Grodno in the 17th century
Overnight, believing that the whole Swedish army was outside the town, the Russians decamped and in the morning the Swedes rode into a deserted town. The Russians set up a new defensive line on the River Berezina.
Charles and his exhausted army followed; but Charles was pushing his men too hard, having driven them over five hundred miles, with little food and virtually no forage for the horses. The army went into winter quarters on 17th March, northwest of Minsk.
The Summer Campaign of 1708In early May the Swedes began preparing to move; the troops scoured the countryside for provender before marching off towards the Berezina.
‘The King of Sweden, who had foreseen these difficulties, had provided biscuit for the subsistence of his army, so that nothing stopped him in his march. After he had crossed the forest of Minsky……….he found himself on the 25th June 1708 before the River Berezine, over against Borislow.’’[xiii]For Charles, although he did not know it, this march through Russia was to end at Poltova. The Swedes converged on Minsk in early June
Meanwhile Peter had withdrawn his army back across the Dnieper River. And then at a council of war Peter ordered that all along the roads from where the Swedes were encamped the land was to be destroyed; creating a zone of devastation 120 miles deep. The town of Dorpat was levelled.At this time of great tension Peter fell ill again; writing to Golovin
‘I beg you to do everything that can possibly be done without me. When I was well, I let nothing pass, but now God sees what I am after this illness which this place and Poland have caused me, and if in these next few weeks I have no time for taking medicine and resting, God knows what will happen.’[xiv]Having avoided the Russians on the Berenzina, Charles received information that the Russians were mustering near Golovchin[xv]. He decided to seek out the Russians and fight, rather than march around them, as he had successfully done three times already. Charles defeated the Russians, but this time the Russians stood and fought, rather than run as had so often happened in the past[xvi]. Sheremetev’s troops had not been involved in the fighting and he was able to withdraw them in good order.
BibliographyNatasha’s Dance – Orlando Figes, Penguin Books Ltd 2002
Russia and the Russians – Geoffrey Hosking, The Penguin Press 2001Peter the Great – Robert K Massie, Abacus 1992
The History of Charles XII of Sweden – Mr de Voltaire, C Davis & A Lyon 1732www.wikipedia.en
[i] As a sop to his pride Charles had allowed Augustus to retain the title of king
[ii] The History of Charles XII - Voltaire
[iii] Trapped there by the presence of the Swedes between themselves and Russia
[iv] Disillusioned with the whole sorry affair of his native Livonia Patkul planned to retire to Switzerland, where he had purchased an estate, and marry a rich widow
[v] The Saxon government may have been wishful to remove a witness of their poor treatment of the Russian soldiers, who had been close to starving before Patkul assisted them
[vi] The History of Charles XII - Voltaire
[viii] Peter the Great - Massie
[x] As he had done for Augustus
[xi] Charles had shown a distinct preference to supply his armies from the lands they were passing through
[xii] Peter the Great - Massie
[xiii] The History of Charles XII - Voltaire
[xiv] Peter the Great - Massie
[xv] A small village on the River Babich
[xvi] And the numbers on both sides had been roughly equal